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The Institutions of Democracy

This essay describes and compares Parliament and the Supreme Court and examines the relationship between them. Parliament may still be a great institution, but its members are no longer great men. How long can a great institution remain great in the hands of small men? The SC has held its place in the public esteem rather better than the Lok Sabha, despite the occasional allegation of financial impropriety. Parliament, the SC and the party system have all begun to reveal hitherto concealed deficiencies which should be brought to light and criticised, but constructively and not destructively.

and assumed diverse forms and modes of

The Institutions of Democracy

functioning. In many European countries democratic ideals and values grew in response to the oppressive rule of absolut-André Béteille ist monarchs. Here again there were dif-

This essay describes and compares Parliament and the Supreme Court and examines the relationship between them. Parliament may still be a great institution, but its members are no longer great men. How long can a great institution remain great in the hands of small men? The SC has held its place in the public esteem rather better than the Lok Sabha, despite the occasional allegation of financial impropriety. Parliament, the SC and the party system have all begun to reveal hitherto concealed deficiencies which should be brought to light and criticised, but constructively and not destructively.

This is a revised version of the Third Pravin Visaria Memorial Public Lecture delivered in Ahmedabad on 1 March 2011. It will appear in a book to be published later by Oxford University Press under the title Democracy and Its Institutions.

Andre Beteille ( is National Research Professor and Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Delhi.

e live in the age of democracy. This means that democracy provides the touchstone by which political actions and processes are judged as beneficial or otherwise. The virtues of democracy as an ideal of social and political life are acknowledged even in regimes that are at least formally monarchical as in countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), the Netherlands and the Scandinavian kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It must be pointed out that this has not been so in all places or at all times, and the validity and legitimacy of what have been called “aristocratic” as against “democratic” regimes have been widely acknowledged in the past (Tocqueville 1956).

For many the main virtue of democracy is that it gives the common people a place in the sun. It reduces the gap between the rulers and the ruled by restricting the powers of the former and enlarging those of the latter. In a monarchical or imperial regime in the true sense of the term, the common people are subjects and not citizens. The advance of democracy transforms subjects into citizens. It is a paradox of our time that the rights of citizenship are better respected in monarchies such as Britain and the Netherlands than in democracies such as India or Sri Lanka.

Democracy is animated by the lofty ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. These were the ideals of the French Revolution which inspired people in many countries to challenge the absolutist monarchies of the past. We too invoked them as our nationalist leaders challenged their colonial rulers. After the attainment of independence we inscribed those same ideals in the Preamble to our Constitution, and added to them justice – social, economic and political.

Political regimes which call themselves democracies or subscribe to democratic ideals and values have in fact emerged under very different historical conditions ferences even between neighbouring countries. In the UK the slow ascent towards democratic principles and practices began in 1215 with the Magna Carta although, as I have already noted, the steady expansion of the rights of citizenship has not been accompanied by the abolition of the monarchy or, for that matter, the House of Lords. In France, on the other hand, a more dramatic change took place from monarchy to republic in 1789, although France alternated between republic and monarchy (or empire) well into the second half of the 19th century.

Democracy via Confrontation

The idea of democracy came to us with colonial rule. But as Nirad C Chaudhuri (1951: v) put it memorably, it conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship. The aspiration of Indians to become a nation of free and equal citizens, which was kindled by colonial rule, was given a distinct focus with the formation of a political party, the Indian National Congress as early as in 1885. That party became the vehicle for the aspirations of the nationalists against their colonial rulers. Their leaders could ask for national independence only by mobilising the India n people as a whole against the colonial regime. They found it natural to use the languag e of democracy in their fight for independence.

Democracy emerged in India out of a confrontation with a power imposed from outside rather than an engagement with the contradictions inherent in Indian society. Those contradictions remained deeply embedded in the Indian social order even as the country opted for a democratic political order on the attainment of independence. They are giving Indian democracy a very different character from democracy in the west which grew and advanced by confronting a succession of internal social contradictions.

In the west, the democratic and industrial revolutions emerged together, reinforcing

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each other and slowly and steadily transforming the whole of society. The economic and social preconditions for the success of democracy grew along with, and sometimes in advance of, the political institutions of democracy. In India, the politi cal argument for democracy was adopted by the leaders of the nationalist movement from their colonial rulers and adapted to their immediate objective which was freedom from colonial rule. The building of new political institutions took second place, and the creation of the economic and social conditions for the successful operation of those institutions, such as education, healthcare and other social services lagged well behind.

Ministers, legislators and even judges never tire of speaking of the need to put service to the common man first. It is a habit of speech that was acquired during the struggle for national independence, and now serves as a mantra on all public occasions. The common people themselves are not sure how much they can depend upon those who repeatedly invoke the ideals of democracy in their name. It is in this context that I turn my attention from the ideals of democracy to the actual operation of its institutions.

The Operation of Democracy

While much may be said about democratic ideals and values such as those of liberty, equality and social justice, I focus my attention here on the institutions of democracy. I do so not only because of the intrinsic importance of institutions for the successful operation of democracy but also because they appear to me to be more concrete and tangible as objects of enquiry and investigation.

The term “institution” has many meanings, as is to be expected of any term that is used so widely and across so many different disciplines ranging from law and political theory to sociology and cultural anthropology (Béteille 2010: 114-33). Even among sociologists the term has at least two different though related meanings. In the first sense, an institution is an enduring group with a distinct identity and with boundaries that mark it out from its environment. In the second sense, it is a pattern of activities that are recurrent, legitimate and meaningful. Thus, for the sociologist not only the court but also law is an institution; not only the school but also education is an institution; and not only the family but also marriage is an institution. In both senses the institution has to be distinguished from the individual and from acts that are peculiar to particular individuals.

I find it convenient to begin with the institution as an enduring group that outlives its individual members, and then to move on to the regular and recurrent activities that are a part of that group’s existence. The advantage with this is that the institution as an enduring group often has a distinct physical identity as, for instance, the school, the court or the legislature, and this enables us to form a concrete picture of its social identity. It is relatively easy to form a clear picture of the school as an institution before asking whether what goes on in it does or does not correspond to any meaningful form of education. That is the kind of question that we must ask ultimately about our political institutions but it will be useful for a start to form a concrete picture of those institutions in their concrete settings.

As one would expect in a country with the size, diversity and antiquity of India, there are many different institutions performing a wide range of functions, social, economic and political. Some of these institutions have their origins very far back in time while others are of more recent origin, although even here, the older of our high courts can trace their origins back to the 19th century. In discussing the institutions of democracy, my focus will be not on the institutions that have come down from our ancient or medieval past, but on those that began to emerge from the middle of the 19th century onwards. I will thus not have anything to say about the village democracies of the past about whose institutional form or mode of functioning we know little or nothing.

In speaking about the institutions of democracy, I will focus on the specifically political institutions. It has been recognised for nearly 200 years that democracy has a social as well as a political side (Tocqueville 1956). Of particular importance to the operation of democracy are what I have called the institutions of civil society. The weakness of democracy in India is due in no small part to the weakness of the institutions of civil society. But I will not discuss those institutions here, partly for reasons of space and partly because I have written about them in some detail elsewhere (Béteille 2000a: 172-97; Gupta 2005: 437-58).

Parliament and Judiciary

My treatment of political institutions will be illustrative rather than exhaustive. I will focus on Parliament and the state legislatures, the Supreme Court (SC) and high courts, and on political parties. Others may be added to these, but considerations of space do not permit me to do so. At any rate, no one can deny the great importance and value of the institutions I have chosen for discussion here.

Some will no doubt ask why I have chosen only two of the great institutions of governance, the legislative and the judicial, and left out the third which is the executive. This is not because I consider the executive to be less important than the other two but because I believe that a consideration of any two, and a comparison and contrast of them will suffice to present my main argument about the nature and significance of institutions. Moreover, I have elsewhere discussed in some detail the nature and significance of the executive branch of the government (Dar 1999: 198-230). My discussion there of the distinction between the political and the administrative executives foreshadows the distinction I make here between the rule of numbers and the rule of law in my contrast between the legislature and the judiciary.

I would like to begin with Parliament. This is a natural point of departure not only because of the obvious importance of Parliament as a political institution but also because of its high visibility. Nothing that happens in Parliament remains a secret. From the very beginning, the press and the public were given access to Parliament when it was in session. Today one can see the proceedings in Parliament on television without having to leave one’s drawing room. Live telecasts have led to the demystification of Parliament and, as we shall see, to a certain devaluation of it in the public eye.

Parliament enjoys the pride of place among the institutions of democracy. This is particularly true of the Lok Sabha. Its very name, the House of the People signals its popular and representational character, and it is not without reason that our form of democracy is known as the parliamentary form. It is true that the president is, constitutionally, the head of both houses of Parliament, but for all practical purposes the conduct of the Lok Sabha is the responsibility of the elected members themselves, and they conduct their affairs in public view.

Direct election by the people gives to the members of the Lok Sabha their distinctive democratic legitimacy. The formal composition of the two houses of Parliament and their powers and functions are laid down in some detail in the Constitution of India. In addition to Parliament, we also have the state legislatures whose organisation mirrors in many ways the organisation of Parliament.

Along with the central and state legislatures, the SC and the high courts are the other great institutions of democracy. Courts of justice, no matter how high their standing, are of course not unique to democracies. There have been royal courts of justice, and the British set up courts of justice when they began their rule in India. The courts of justice in independent India have continued many of the conventions and practices established under colonial rule and have been criticised, unfairly in my judgment, for being more colonial than democratic. Those who direct their barbs at the SC for its colonial antecedents tend to forget that our Lok Sabha itself is modelled in more ways than one on the House of Commons in Westminster.

Whereas our legislators are elected, our judges are appointed according to procedures laid down in the Constitution. A judge does not have a constituency in the sense in which a member of Parliament (MP) has one. An elected MP has a special responsibility towards his constituents. A judge of the SC has no constituents towards whom he has any special responsibility. The court is not a popular institution in the sense in which an elected legislature is. It is insulated from public pressure and expected to deal even-handedly with government and opposition.

Because of its higher visibility and its more representational character, many believe that it is Parliament rather than the SC that embodies most fully the spirit of democracy. The SC is believed to be “elitist” rather than popular and hence not fully democratic. This reflects the populist as against the constitutionalist concept of democracy. As the populist conception gains ground, the value placed on the institutions of democracy, including Parliament itself, tends to decline.

Numbers and Law

Democracy rests on a delicate balance between two principles which may be called the rule of numbers and the rule of law. Numbers are important in a democracy at every level. When a person contests an election, he or the party which supports him makes an assessment of the numbers to see that the candidate has a reasonable chance of success. In Parliament or in any



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legislative assembly, the success of a motion and sometimes even the survival of the government depend on the ability to muster the right numbers at the right time. This is believed by many to require both manipulation and coercion.

The courts are designed to determine what is right and wrong in the light of the Constitution and the laws. Where there is a violation of the law, the courts have to rule against the violators even where they constitute a majority. In our country the courts have a special significance because disregard for the rule of law is very widespread in the public domain. The true significance of the courts of law in a democracy is that people look to them to protect the citizen against the arbitrary use of power by the state and its functionaries. But they also have the obligation to protect individuals and groups from being unjustly treated simply because they are outnumbered. Democracy requires institutions to ensure that the rule of law is not overwhelmed by the weight of numbers.

In discussing these issues it is important to keep in mind the distinction between power and authority. People who have the numbers behind them often seek to impose their power even where they have no authority in the matter. Many persons who believe that they are backed by numbers because of the electoral support that they have won, or for some other reason feel that the prevalent rules and procedures are obstacles that should not be allowed to frustrate the public interest as they perceive it. Rules and procedures are indeed sometimes obsolete or archaic, and when it is in the general interest for them to change, they should be changed. But here again, they cannot be changed instantly and on the spot but only in accordance with established procedure.

In a large, diverse and disorderly society with an open political system such as ours, it is never easy to settle an issue of immediate or urgent public concern by the counting of heads on the spot. When a few hundred or a few thousand, or even a few lakh persons bring road and rail traffic to a halt, it is not easy to decide whether they or their victims constitute the majority. The rights and wrongs of the issue have to be decided in accordance with the rule of law and not the rule of numbers. Political leaders make commitments under pressure and in the end it is left to the courts to decide whether those commitments are legally and constitutionally valid. When the courts have to intervene again and again in such matters, the relationship betwee n elected legislators and appointed judges comes under strain and the major institutions of democracy become weakened.

We have now entered a season of coalition politics at the centre as well as in several states. Coalition politics has brought home the fact that the calculation of numbers can be of crucial importance even where the numbers are not very large. He who heads a coalition government has to pay close and continuous attention to the numbers he is able to muster. It is well known that many compromises have to be made in the work of legislation simply in order to keep the numbers together. In the states whole groups of legislators are sometimes taken away to distant and undisclose d destinations so that they do not desert the government in its hour of need. These actions are often on the borderline between what is legally valid and what is not, and rival parties, or even members of the public move the courts to give a verdict.

In his much-acclaimed work on the English Constitution, Bagehot (1928) remarked that there was a dignified part and an efficient part in that constitution and that it worked well when the two parts were in proper balance. I believe that our own premier institutions of democracy must be submitted to the test of both dignity and efficiency. I will begin with Parliament and then make some brief observations on the state legislatures before moving to the courts of law.

There have been significant changes in the composition and character of the Lok Sabha since it was first constituted nearly 60 years ago. Socially, it is more representative of the population of the country than in the past. Its membership is drawn from a wider range of castes and classes than before. This is perhaps even truer of the state legislatures. These changes have come about mainly through conscious efforts by each and every political party to widen its base of electoral support from one general election to another. The move to enlarge the presence of women through a system of quotas is yet to bear fruit.

Changing Character

The earlier Lok Sabhas appear in retrospect to be “elitist” not only in their social composition but also in their style of functioning. They included a fair proportion of professional people, particularly lawyers. Many of them were somewhat detached from the rough and tumble of electoral politics. They were able to keep their hands relatively clean even when they had to enter Parliament by contesting elections. It was believed possible to win an election on the candidate’s standing in public life.

Winning an election on the basis of one’s professional competence and standing has now become difficult if not impossible. Our present prime minister, Manmohan Singh provides a striking confirmation of this. Nobody can question his personal integrity or his professional competence. But he has ventured only once, and that too unsuccessfully, to contest an election for the Lok Sabha.

Not only has the number and proportion of persons with professional experience and competence declined in the Lok Sabha, the number and proportion of those with real or alleged criminal records has increased. The criminalisation of politics has entered the Lok Sabha as well as the vidhan sabhas. The disclosed assets of the members of Parliament show that at least in one respect, that of wealth, they are far from being representative of the population of a country in which poverty is pervasive and endemic. If one is able to enter Parliament, one’s children are unlikely to ever have to live in poverty.

The style of functioning has also changed, although it is difficult to say how far the change in style is related to the change in composition. One may speak of a change from a temperate to an intemperate style. In a democracy Parliament is the pre-eminent forum for openly expressing dissent and disagreement. In the past, parliamentary debate was conducted in an atmosphere of civility, in conscious or unconscious imitation of proceedings in the House of Commons in London. Even where disagreement was strong it was tacitly understood that it had to be expressed in parliamentary language.

The tone of civility has all but disappeared from parliamentary debate. Interruptions are frequent and noisy, and it has become a matter of routine for several persons to speak at the same time. Rushing to the well of the house is no longer an uncommon event, and the speaker has a difficult time in maintaining order, and has to adjourn the house repeatedly. Even the Rajya Sabha, where debates are expected to be less acrimonious, has to be adjourned for lack of order. All of this can now be witnessed on television by the general public which is becoming increasingly inured to misconduct in the House of the People.

Perhaps the lowest point in parliamentary disorder was reached during the debate over the Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008. The government was determined to get the bill passed and the opposition was equally determined to block it. Because some of those on whose support the government relied were against the bill, the numbers on the two sides were not absolutely clear. The government won in the end by a very narrow margin, and there were the usual allegations of horse trading. What was unusual, however, was that three of the members of the main opposition party rushed into the house with a sack full of currency notes which were placed before the speaker as material evidence of the bribe paid by the ruling party to ensure that the motion was carried. The dignity of the House was compromised as it had never been before.

The speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha, a distinguished parliamentarian, expressed his frustration and anguish again and again. His repeated admonitions to the members to act with decorum generally went unheeded. We get a vivid picture of his frustration and exasperation from his memoirs published shortly after he ceased to be a MP. On 28 February 2008, he said in the House, “I am sorry I have to say that you are all working overtime to finish democracy in the country”. Some months later he said, “I can only say that you are behaving in the most despicable manner”, and, again, on the same day, “The whole country is ashamed of its parliamentarians” (Chatterjee 2010: 171). Parliament may still be a great institution, but its members are no longer great men. How long can a great institution remain great in the hands of small men?

The ordinary legislative business of Parliament proceeds in a desultory manner until some misdeed of the government, real or alleged, is brought to light. The opposition then pounces on the government and demands an immediate explanation on the floor of the house. The treasury benches try at first to take evasive action, but the opposition remains persistent. The obduracy of the treasury benches is matched by the vehemence of the opposition. The television channels seize their opportunity for breaking news, and lure members of Parliament into their studios where the debates reproduce the disorder of the debates in Parliament.

It is not at all my argument that the demands of the opposition are always unreasonable or that the government never has a reason for refusing to concede those demands. In the noise and disorder generated in Parliament over scandalous misconduct by someone somewhere, it becomes difficult to decide on the merits of the individual case. But the long-term effect of continuous discord and disorder within Parliament is an erosion of public trust in the institution itself.

The successful operation of Parliament as an institution depends on a measure of trust in the fairness of the system by both government and opposition. Here, increasingly each side seems to believe that the other side can act only in bad faith and never in good faith. Perhaps there is a failure of political imagination on both sides. The ruling party finds it hard to imagine having to vacate the treasury benches to make room for its opponents; and the opposition party finds it hard to imagine what it will have to face after it has secured its place on the treasury benches.

The disorder in Parliament detracts not only from its dignity but also from its efficiency. Parliament has to be repeatedly adjourned, sometimes for only a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. Anxiety over a possible boycott of Parliament during the budget session has grown over the years. It has been calculated that “Out of 1,738 hours and 45 minutes, the fourteenth Lok Sabha wasted 423 hours because of disruptions and adjournments due to disorderly scenes” (Chatterjee 2010: 160). This

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does not necessarily mean that during the hours when it was allowed to work, it always worked in an efficient or businesslike manner.

Recently a whole session of Parliament was lost because a determined opposition demanded an enquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee which the government was not prepared to concede. It was prepared to have the matter examined by the Public Accounts Committee instead. Even informed citizens are not always able to understand what such differences signify for dealing with the matters on hand. Increasing numbers of them are coming to the view that our legislators are less interested in the designated business of legislation than in settling scores among themselves. There are serious worries about the loss to the exchequer caused by recurrent stalemates in Parliament.

What should be debated in the full house is increasingly left to committees to do. This becomes to some extent unavoidable when the business of legislation expands. Passing the burden of important business on to committees takes care of the requirements of efficiency up to a point. It is regrettable nevertheless that Parliament is no longer able to meet the high expectations of it that were created in the wake of independence, and that its members now spend so much of their time in disputes that appear to be both endless and fruitless.

Judiciary: Principle and Practice

The SC has held its place in the public esteem rather better than the Lok Sabha. Despite the occasional allegation of financial impropriety, our judges are still regarded as being on the whole learned, high-minded and dutiful in contrast with legislators, ministers and civil servants. The higher courts of justice are smaller, more compact and more purposeful than the legislatures. They are also better insulated from popular pressure.

A person from any class or community may seek election to Parliament. He may be a peasant, an artisan or a man with only five years of schooling and still take an active part in parliamentary debate. The appointment of judges is confined to the middle class, and that too, to the upper levels of it. The legal profession is

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described as a learned profession, and lawyers and judges have an elevated position in society by virtue of their education and occupation. Where the middle class is very small as it was in India until recently, the higher judiciary stands out from the rest of society. There are pressures now to make the judiciary more representative in terms of caste and community, but it is difficult to visualise a judiciary whose members belong in equal proportions to every social class or stratum.

Judges disagree with each other although these disagreements are not on party lines or are not expected to be on party lines. The chief justice has no authority to issue a whip to ensure conformity with his own judgment. When he finds himself in a minority, all he can do is to record a dissenting judgment. Judges express their disagreement in judicial prose and not by shouting at each other or brandishing their fists in open court. And generally speaking, judges are less eager to appear on television than MPs.

Judicial prose is learned, not to say recondite, and at least in India it tends to be prolix. Two or three judges often write separate judgments even when their opinions are substantially the same, and they tend to write at great length. Judicial deliberation and judicial composition take time. As a result, cases remain unattended for months and years.

The law’s delay has caused worry to ordinary persons in many places and in many ages, but it seems to have acquired pathological dimensions in India today. This is partly because aggrieved parties are rarely satisfied with the verdict of the lower courts and seek to go on appeal to the higher ones. When a particular party does not want an early decision, he can engage a counsel who is skilled in the art of securing adjournments. It is sometimes suspected that there is collusion between lawyers and judges in expediting or delaying a hearing.

While the law’s delay affects large numbers of persons, it does not affect them equitably. As I have indicated, some might benefit from it while others suffer. Indian society is a highly stratified one, and some can bear more easily than others the costs in both time and money of a protracted judicial process. It is natural for those who get entangled in litigation for no fault of theirs to feel that they are the victims rather than the beneficiaries of the courts. Thus, while the court is no doubt an institution, some might question how far it acts as a democratic institution in upholding the principle of equality in its actual practice.

I have so far described and compared Parliament and the SC. This is only the first step in the understanding of the institutions of democracy. A second and more difficult step would be to examine the relationship between them. They are assigned distinct spheres of operation, but they are expected to work in harmony. There is a wide gap between the expectation and the reality. The question is not simply whether the gap is particularly wide in India today, but whether it is growing wider.

There are various reasons – personal, professional and others – for friction between Parliament and the SC. The exclusive jurisdiction claimed by the one is not always recognised as being exclusive by the other. Underlying all of this is the tension between the two irreducible principles of democracy to which I have referred more than once, the rule of numbers and the rule of law. That tension, carried beyond a certain point, may erupt into the kind of disorder that calls for the suspension of the institutions of democracy eithe r for the time being or for good.

Party and Faction

Apart from the institutions of the State, such as the legislative and the judicial ones, political parties play an important part in a democracy. Our party system has acquired a distinctive character as the number of parties has increased steadily during the 60 years since independence.

At the time of independence, the Congress Party held a unique position as the party of the nationalist movement. Its main adversary, the Muslim League lost its significance in India with the Partition of the country. The Hindu Mahasabha underwent several transformations before emer ging as the Bharatiya Janata Party, now the principal adversary of the Congress Party. The proliferation of parties has given a distinctiv e character to political alliances in India. It has made those alliances indispensable and at the same time volatile.

There are various reasons behind the proliferation of parties in India. It is a large country with a very diverse population and a tradition of cultural and social pluralism. There are parties and associations representing all shades of ideological orientation from the extreme left to the extreme right. There are secular parties and “pseudo-secular” ones. In India no party is prepared to disown secularism, and hence when a party is denounced by its adversary for not being secular, it labels the adversary as “pseudo-secular”.

There are regional parties such as the Asom Gana Parishad, the Telegu Desam Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam which have specifically regional interests. But every regional party has an eye on the centre if only because of the concessions it hopes to secure from it. Likewise, a national party, or a party which expects to hold office at the centre seeks to maintain a regional presence and to secur e alliances with regional parties at the centre as well as in the states. An alliance partner who is strong only in its own region does not always act consistently in the state and at the centre.

The number of parties increases when an existing party splits into two or more parties. Splits have been quite common in political parties in India. A party may split because of differences in ideology or because of the clash of personal interests and ambitions. In India, the latter is the more important factor, although those who bring about a split always invoke some point of principle as their reason. Politicians have personal ambitions everywhere, but it is only in some countries that personal ambition prevails so frequently over loyalty to the party. It is difficult to say whether this is due to the strength of personal ambition or the weakness of the party as an institution.

Not only personal ambition, but loyalty to family, kin and community may also override loyalty to the party. The institutional requirements of a modern political party concerned with democratic governance are different from those of groups based on kinship, caste and community. The shifting alliances among political parties that are a conspicuous feature of the Indian political scene are often governed by the personal loyalties of leaders and their followers.

Is every political party an institution in the sense in which I have been using the term? Here it is important to distinguish between party and faction. Factions have existed since time immemorial, and the Indian soil is congenial to their growth. The political party is of much more recent origin, and it came into being in the political environment created by colonial rule. The oldest political party in the country, the Indian National Congress was created at the initiative of a British civil servant, Allan Octavian Hume.

A leading student of the subject has defined factions in terms of the following five attributes: (i) a faction is a conflict group;

  • (ii) a faction is a political group; (iii) a faction is not a corporate group; (iv) faction members are recruited by a leader; and
  • (v) faction members are recruited on diverse principles (Nicholas 1965). Factions and parties are based on different organisational principles, and where the faction is strong, the party tends to be weak.
  • As an institution, the party is expected to have a longer span of life than a faction. It is expected to outlive its current members while still retaining its name, its identity and its basic structure. An important requirement of institutional conti nuity is the replacement of existing members by new ones according to a distinct set of principles. New members may be inducte d by election or by appointment. These are both valid and legitimate principle s in a democracy, depending on the natur e and functions of the institution. As we have seen, MPs are elected while judge s of the SC are appointed . The conditions of eligibility in the first case are politica l and in the second case they are professional.

    There is a third way in which succession may be ensured, and that is through genealogical connection, i e, through ties of kinship and marriage. Monarchs are not elected or appointed, they select themselves by virtue of birth. Selection for leadership by birth is a very widespread political practice in India and other south Asian countries. The practice is so widespread as to appear to many to be a principle .

    It is to some extent natural for someone growing up in the home of a politician to be attracted to politics just as someone growing up in a medical family may be attracted to the medical and someone in a legal family to the legal profession. But in a society and in an age in which individual ambition counts for something, one may follow one’s own aptitude and choose a career for oneself. In India there is a general tendency for young men to be guided by the family in the choice of a career. The genealogical route is followed by default where other criteria of selection are not strictly required. And it is of course much easier to adopt politics as a career without any specialised training than it is to adopt a career in a profession requiring long and arduous training.

    The value placed on family and kinship is much stronger in India than it is in countries such as Britain and France where the institutions of democracy based on open and secular principles have had a longer life and a clearer definition. It is not that there have not been political families in those countries, but in general political institutions have been better insulated from the demands of family and kinship. This is because kinship there is not regarded by people in general as the natural route to political office.

    Millions, if not hundreds of millions of Indians believe that when a political leader passes away, particularly when this happens unexpectedly, he should be succeeded by his son, his daughter, his wife or even his daughter-in-law. We will fail to understand the weakness of the party as an open and secular institution if we ignore the pressure for genealogical succession characteristic of our social order.

    One of our leading journalists and political commentators, Malhotra (2003) has provided a well-documented account of dynastic politics on the subcontinent. He has pointed out that dynastic politics in India is not confined to the Congress Party or to what has come to be described as the first family in the country. He has documented the rise of what he calls “midi” and “mini” dynasties in various states. These dynasties aim to secure control not only over the party but also over the government. Dynastic control over a party loses its strength where the party has little prospect of forming a government.

    Interpreting the Maladies

    I have in the foregoing drawn attention to the maladies by which what I consider to be the basic institutions of democracy are beset in India today. My objective is not to argue that these institutions have become dispensable or valueless and that we should try to build a new and more vibrant form of democracy in which people govern themselves by creating new social movements and new associations. On the contrary, it is because I believe in the great importance of those institutions and the need to maintain them in some order that I have drawn attention to their current failings. Elsewhere, I have drawn attention to the distinction between constitutional and populist democracy (Béteille 2008). We started on independence to create a constitutional democracy, and I believe that we adopted the right path and should not be diverted from it.

    If we look back on what we had expected of our democratic institutions at the time

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    july 16, 2011 vol xlvi no 29

    of independence, we are bound to be disappointed. In his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly, Babasaheb Ambedkar had expressed hope for the future but he had also warned against complacency (Government of India 1989: 978). The “grammar of anarchy” against whose revival he had warned, far from dying down, has acquired new legitimacy from various sources. But if we look around and view developments in our neighbouring countries and further afield in the countries which have also become independent and self-governing, we cannot but see the difference that democratic institutions have made to India’s vast population. Some have benefited substantially from them although others, constituting perhaps the majority have benefited only marginally.

    Our party system has failed in many important respects, but we still have a plurality of parties which are able to express divergent views in the legislatures and outside. Parties are able to articulate diver gent views in a manner that is more reasonable, more coherent and more constructive than the voices raised in demonstrations, rallies and other evanescent gatherings that are the staple of populist as against constitutional politics. And if we are bedevilled by the multiplicity of parties, it is well to remember that a system with many parties is still a democracy, which a system with one single party is not.

    The institutions of which I have spoken

    – Parliament, the Supreme Court, and even the political parties – stand as bulwarks against the dangers by which democracy is threatened, particularly in those countries where commitment to its basic principles is weak. Without those institutions, neither respect for the rule of law nor care for the interests of the disadvantaged would be sustained for long. The two dangers by which democracy is threatened in many countries are anarchy and the abuse of power (Béteille 2000b). They threaten it from opposite sides, but have ultimately the same effect.

    India experienced a period of authoritarian rule during the Emergency of 197577 when the abuse of power became widespread and almost a matter of routine. The due process of law was disregarded; leaders of opposition parties were put in jail; the courts remained silent and complicit.

    The Emergency took a toll on the opposition, but, what is more important it discredited the Congress Party in the eyes of the people and to some extent even in the eyes of some of its own reflective members. Few people today, irrespective of the party they support, look back on the Emergency with satisfaction or pride. The Emergency did not abolish the institutions of democracy, but by subduing them, it created at least for a while a deeper awareness of their value.

    In retrospect, the Emergency was relatively mild, and it did not last very long. The person who imposed it herself brought it to an end by calling for elections. In the fitness of things, she lost the elections and her party had to take its place on the opposition benches. Indira Gandhi certainly succeeded in bending the institutions of democracy to her will, but only to some extent. She has been described repeatedly as a dictator and a despot, but compared with real dictators such as Hitler, Stalin or Mao, she was at best a half-hearted dictator.

    What made Indira Gandhi a half-hearted dictator was not so much any trait of personal character as the institutional environment in which she had made a place for herself. She may have despised the legislators, the judges, and even the members of her own party as individuals, but she could not cast out of her political imagination the institutions they served and that stood above them (Dhar 2000).

    India has a large and articulate body of public intellectuals comprising journalists, lawyers, social scientists and many others. Some of them enjoy only a local or regional reputation while others are known nationally or even internationally.

    Public intellectuals play a very significant role in a democracy. At their best they act as the conscience keepers of the nation. But many of them, at least in India are inclined to adopt vehement if not sensationalist modes of expression which tend to obscure instead of clarifying public issues. Even reckless attacks on the authorities do not generally entail significant costs in India at least in comparison with other countries such as China, Iran or the Soviet Union during its ascendancy. This leads many public intellectuals to positio n themselves, almost as a matter of routine, against the authorities and on the side of that amorphous and indefinable body known as the people. As a result, the deeper roots of political failures remain unattended.

    Here I would like to make a distinction between individual misconduct and institutional failure. My main interest as a sociologist is in the latter and not the former. Our legal system has procedures for dealing with individual misconduct. Admittedly, those procedures do not always work fairly or expeditiously. But, frequent and repeated recourse to agitations and demonstrations bring us close to the grammar of anarchy. They cast doubts on the efficacy of the prescribed procedures and undermine their regulatory capacity.

    No public institution can work effectively where there is a general failure of trust and where that failure is expressed openly, repeatedly and stridently. There is a rising current among our public intellectuals of emancipationist and antinomian rhetoric. In this kind of rhetoric the target of attack shifts from particular individuals to the institutions they serve, and finally to the whole institutional order of society, including the institutions with which I have dealt. Parliament, the SC and the party system have all begun to reveal deficiencies that had at first remained concealed. Those deficiencies should be brought to light by public intellectuals and criticised, but constructively and not destructively. Relentless antinomian assaults that undermine public confidence in them leads to a weakening of democracy and not its strengthening even when those assaults are made in the name of the highest ideals of democracy.

    In the Name of Civil Society

    The institutions of democracy have not served the people of India as well as they were expected to. They have repeatedly and persistently acted against the spirit of democracy. This has been pointed out time and again by the well-wishers of those institutions as well as their adversaries. The reasoned criticism of public institutions, no matter how severe, is one thing; their thoughtless and wilful denigration is another. It does not appear right to me to argue as if our economic, social and political advance in the last 60 years owed nothing to them.

    It is of the essence of democracy to allow open criticism of its institutions not only in Parliament, but also outside it, in the press and in meetings and associations of various kinds. Civil disobedience too has a legitimate place in a democracy. But the greatest exponent of it, Mahatma Gandhi always maintained that the civil disobedient must be prepared to submit his own conduct to stricter moral scrutiny than the ordinary citizen. Moreover, as Ambedkar had pointed out in the Constituent Assembly, the entire context of civil disobedience had changed with the change from a colonial state to an independent nation with a republican Constitution (Government of India 1989: 978).

    Not all the protests, demonstrations and rallies organised against the government or in defiance of it correspond to Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of civil disobedience, or to anybody’s idea of it. Many of them, including some that are organised in the name of civil society are anything but civil.

    Civil society has to play an active role in a democracy. But today we cannot ignore the fact that what are called civil society movements differ very much among themselves in character and composition, and have very diverse political agendas including some that are not only antithetical to the spirit of democracy but are very peculiar in their demands. Perhaps we ought to take a tolerant view and allow the public expression of views that we know are unlikely to lead anywhere at all.

    Should we mistrust all civil society movements simply because some of them might lead to the disruption of public institutions? That would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Which of the movements organised in the name of civil society advance the objectives of democracy and which ones subvert them are questions on which each citizen must form his own judgment, and this is what democracy allows and, indeed, encourages its citizens to do.

    No matter how much we value social movements for the part they play in keeping both government and opposition on their toes, they cannot be a substitute for the institutions of democracy. We have to distinguish between social movements that act within the framework of democratic institutions and those that have to act because such a framework does not exist, or exists only in name. In India some leaders of popular movements speak and act as if no such framework exists, or as if democracy can be established only by dismantling what exists.

    In India a framework of democratic institutions not only exists but has acted as a shield against the most menacing threat to democratic rule which is military rule. Many well-meaning social activists believe that once the corrupt government and the equally corrupt opposition have been put aside, a new and incorrupt leadership will automatically emerge from among the people by a spontaneous act of self-generation, a kind of sociopolitical parthenogenesis. This might happen in the realm of fantasy, but it is not what generally happens in the real world.

    When an existing government is overthrown by a popular upsurge, the responsibility for forming a new government sometimes falls on the military. This is the likely outcome when the opposition is not constituted as an institution. If we look around in our neighbourhood and beyond to the countries of west Asia and north Africa, we will find many examples of this. Where the institutions of democracy are feeble and unformed, the army is a natural candidate for taking over the government of a country. Where those institutions are strong and well regarded, the army is likely to stay in its place.

    Army and Democracy

    If the army has shown little inclination to take over the burden of government in India it is in no small measure because it has been on the whole kept in its place by Parliament, by the SC and by the political executive. No military man has ever been the president or prime minister of independent India, and so far as I can recall none has even been the defence minister. The subordination and the accountability of the army to the civilian authorities are tacitly acknowledged by all parties, even by those who never miss an opportunity to denigrate those very institutions.

    In other countries where those institutions have at best a fitful existence it might appear natural for the army to step into the vacuum created by a popular upsurge.

    july 16, 2011

    This is because the army appears to many people to be the only institution that is modern, secular and progressive and that can hold the country back from a descent into chaos. In countries such as Egypt and Tunisia people have little to choose between being ruled by the army and living in a state of continuous disorder. In India we do have a choice but many of our public intellectuals appear unmindful of what the institutions of democracy have enabled us to escape.

    We must not underestimate the significant part that the army has played in many countries in the modernisation of society. Egypt offers a good example. Few will deny the social and economic advances made by that country between King Farouk’s time and the present. But those advances were made by a regime headed by three successive military men: Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. I have been told by persons who understand and sympathise with Pakistan’s predicament – Americans, Indians and even some Pakistanis – that Indians do not understand what Pakistan owes to its army. We must not treat lightly what we owe to our democratic institutions for enabling us to manage our political affairs without incurring too many debts to our army.


    Bagehot, Walter (1928): The English Constitution (London: Oxford University Press).

    Béteille, André (2000a): Antinomies of Society (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

  • (2000b): “Anarchy and Abuse of Power”, Economic Political Weekly, Vol xxxv, No 10, pp 779-83.
  • (2008): “Constitutional Morality”, Economic Political Weekly, Vol xliii, No 40, pp 35-42.
  • (2010): Universities at the Crossroads (Delhi: Oxford University Press). Chatterjee, Somnath (2010): Keeping the Faith (New Delhi: HarperCollins). Chaudhuri, Nirad C (1951): Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (London: Macmillan). Dar, R K ed. (1999): Governance and the IAS (New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill).
  • Dhar, P N (2000): Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

    Government of India (1989): Constituent Assembly Debates: Official Report, New Delhi: Lok Sabha Secretariat, Vols x-xii.

    Gupta, Dipankar ed. (2005): Anti-Utopia: Essential Writings of André Béteille (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

    Malhotra, Inder (2003): Dynasties of India and Beyond (Delhi: HarperCollins).

    Nicholas, Ralph W (1965): “Factions: A Comparative Analysis” in Michael Banton (ed.), Political Systems and the Distribution of Power (London: Tavistock), pp 21-61.

    Tocqueville, Alexis de (1956): Democracy in America (New York: Alfred Knopf), 2 Vols.

    vol xlvi no 29

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